It’s tempting to believe that the cruel behavior of teenagers in Steubenville, Ohio, is an anomaly. And it’d be easy to blame the whole sordid mess surrounding this now famous rape case on the unique dynamics of athlete-worshiping towns. Why else would two star football players think it was O.K. to sexually assault an incapacitated 16-year-old girl while dozens of their peers looked on, laughed and uploaded photos of the rape in progress without really comprehending that it was rape? At the sentencing of the two Ohio teens convicted on Sunday, the judge, Thomas Lipps, said: “The things our children were saying and doing were profane and ugly.” But those Steubenville kids are not so different from kids across America. Before we condemn them, let’s remember they could be our children.
Every time a tragic bullying case or some other national event exposes the unpleasant underbelly of teen social media, we’re all dismayed, not just about the possible crime in question but also about the tone and tenor of the world that is revealed — whether it’s the Florida teen bullied on a new social site called Ask.fm by kids who anonymously taunted her with “Just kill yourself. Your [sic] worthless,” or by the recurring scandals brought on by the epidemic of consensual but disturbingly explicit sexting. These incidents have parents cringing.
In the Steubenville case, one of the many disturbing revelations was that too many kids didn’t seem to understand that rather than make jokes or forward photos, they should do something to help the victim. But we can’t expect much from our kids when we adults seem pretty conflicted about what exactly constitutes rape — or what’s O.K. to joke about and what’s not.
Up until January 2012, the FBI’s official definition included the word forcible — an effective exclusion of nonconsensual sex with a person who was incapacitated or unconscious because they were drugged or intoxicated. That has changed, but the culture might take a while to catch up. And it bears reminding that the GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan sponsored an antiabortion bill allowing exemptions only in the cases of “forcible” rape, which could exclude cases in which the victim was underage or unconscious. In that context, it’s not hard to understand why one of the Steubenville witnesses, Evan Westlake, testified that he didn’t think what he was seeing was rape, saying: “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.”
And as for what’s funny, my 16-year-old daughter tells me that while her friends would never rape someone, the language used by the Steubenville kids to describe sexual assault and to degrade the victim is common online. Joking about rape, referencing sexual acts and girls making fun of girls perceived as “sluts” is just part of teen online culture now. The Steubenville kids captioned a picture of the passed-out victim “B-tches is b-tches. F— ’em,” but you could find dozens of similar comments online written by both young men and young women.
If rape is too common of a punch line for this generation, we shouldn’t be shocked. After all, these kids were raised on Family Guy, a show created by Seth MacFarlane, who drew ire after this year’s Oscars ceremony with his “We Saw Your Boobs” routine and a litany of other offensive jabs. But that’s nothing compared with the animated series’ abortion-coat-hanger jokes and the constant verbal abuse of the female characters. The series, which has become hugely popular among teen boys and young men, features more rape humor than one could tally, including one scene in which a woman is being assaulted on a beach and screams for help while another character, Aquaman, issues lame threats to the perpetrator without leaving the water. The scene ends when Aquaman gives up, saying: “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have led him on.” Maybe this was brilliant, sophisticated meta-humor in which we’re supposed to see this as a commentary on the pressure men feel to be heroes, but is that really how the show’s prime audience of young men will understand it?
Of course, it’s not fair to link fictional characters and real-life violence. But if you can laugh at rape on TV, why wouldn’t the real thing be funny if you’re young and drunk and if the developmental maturity to control your impulses is years away?
Now, under the glare of the media, the kids in Steubenville have been forced to think twice. Recently, a Steubenville college student not involved in the assault, but who was shown on tape laughing hysterically at images of the rape and calling the girl “dead,” has, despite statements expressing horror at his own behavior, been so vilified and threatened online that he withdrew from college in January. His story is an example of the kind of ancillary damage that happens when the line between real-life pain and bad humor has been blurred — and not just for that kid or the other Steubenville teens. Perhaps it’s time we made it our responsibility, as parents, to explain where we think the line is and who is crossing it — in the media and elsewhere.
Addendum: For those who wonder what a successful rape joke might look like, that topic has been explored here, with a special shout-out to Wanda Sykes.